Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio contributor Dwain McFarland reveals the startling data behind Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ first season as an NFL starter.
Heading into week ten of the NFL season, Patrick Mahomes is the favorite to win the league MVP according to Las Vegas sports books. If you want in on the action, it will currently cost you money to bet on the Kansas City signal caller who is leading the league in passing yards (2,901), and passing touchdowns (29).
Let this sink in: Those numbers put the 22-year-old on pace for 5,152 yards and 51 touchdowns, which would be good for 7th and 2nd best all time, respectively.
It is easy to see why he is the favorite given those numbers, but how is he doing it? This is a question I decided to dig deeper into and what I found is quite amazing. Mahomes’ season from a statistical perspective is as strong or better than some of the best seasons we have seen from the elites like Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees.
Mahomes currently ranks 12th in completion percentage (66.2 percent) out of quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts on the season. It’s a misleading data point because his average depth of target (aDOT) ranks third (9.6). Completion percentages usually decline for quarterbacks as aDOT goes up.
We have aDOT data back to 2007 thanks to Pro Football Focus (and @MikeClay. During that time span, 112 quarterbacks met the following criteria:
- More than 300 Attempts
- aDOT >=9 AND <=10
The weighted completion percentage across 53,821 attempts is 61.8 percent versus Mahomes’ 66.2 percent. Context matters.
Since 2007, here are the top 10 quarterbacks ranked by completion percentage with an aDOT of 9.5 yards or more.
Top Ten Completion Rates with aDOT >= 9.5 (2007-2017)
If Mahomes maintains his current completion rate and aDOT, he would place 5th out of 56 quarterbacks who played at least 15 games and had an aDOT greater or equal to 9.5 since 2007. Pretty salty company for a 22-year-old.
While Mahomes completion numbers are strong, his underlying yardage statistics are astounding. If his 9.2 yards per attempt (YPA) remains intact it would tie with several other players as the 17th best single season in NFL history. Aaron Rodgers’ 2011 season, which won him league MVP, finished at 9.2 YPA.
Rodgers posted a sterling 5.18 Yards In the Air (YIA) per attempt paired with a 4.07 Yards After Catch (YAC) per attempt. Since 2007 only four quarterbacks have posted a YIA greater or equal to 4.5 yards and a YAC greater or equal to four.
Through nine games Patrick Mahomes is currently at 4.6 YIA and 4.6 YAC per attempt. No quarterback with over 400 attempts since 2007 has accomplished that feat.
Andy Reid’s offenses have historically produced strong YAC numbers. Here are Alex Smith’s totals in Kansas City:
- 2013 – 3.45
- 2014 – 4.08
- 2015 – 4.19
- 2016 – 3.84
- 2017 – 3.89
However, Reid hasn’t had a quarterback like Mahomes to allow him to marry his strong YAC scheme with throws further downfield. Vice versa, most quarterbacks that have enjoyed strong YIA have not gotten to enjoy the spoils of a strong YAC system like Reid’s. Of the 132 qualifying seasons by quarterbacks with greater than or equal to 4.0 YIA per attempt, here is the breakdown of the YAC success they experienced:
- Greater than 4.0 YAC = 6 (4.5%)
- Greater than 3.75 YAC = 19 (14.4%)
- Greater than 3.5 YAC = 36 (27.2%)
- Greater than 3.0 YAC = 84 (63.6%)
You can see evidence of Mahomes enabling Reid to deepen routes by comparing aDOT over the last few seasons for primary passing targets. The top two wide receivers have increased aDOT by 3.8 and 5.9 from 2017 to 2018 yet the reception rates have not suffered badly.
The target share (Tar MS/GM) has also increased for wide receivers (a position Alex Smith targeted less).
This is an offense that can attack all areas of the field and does so consistently, regardless of down and distance. One of the wildest findings is Mahomes’ consistent YPA across varying yards-to-go scenarios. Here is a breakdown of YPA for Mahomes’ 2018, Alex Smith’s 2017, and NFL average from 2017:
- 1 to 3 yards to go: 8.6, 8.2, 5.6
- 4 to 6 yards to go: 8.8, 5.4, 6.0
- 7 to 9 yards to go: 9.1, 4.7, 6.3
- 10 plus yards to go: 9.0, 8.9, 7.0
Typically, NFL quarterbacks are less aggressive as distance to a first down decreases. Not Mahomes. The top three passing yardage seasons of all time belong to Peyton Manning (2013), Drew Brees (2011), and Tom Brady (2011). Here are their YPAs from those seasons:
- 1 to 3 yards to go: 4.4, 6.9, 5.5
- 4 to 6 yards to go: 6.9, 8.1, 8.2
- 7 to 9 yards to go: 7.7, 8.3, 8.5
- 10 plus yards to go: 9.3, 8.2, 9.0
Each attacked the sticks aggressively, but none posted YPAs higher for the first three categories like the Chiefs sophomore passer. This is not to say he’s better than these players, obviously, he still has a ton to prove and we are dealing with only 9 games of data versus 16. Still, it is interesting to consider the type of bind this behavior can put opposing defenses in — they are used to defending just beyond or right at the distance to go to.
Mahomes and the Chiefs are breaking typical NFL trends with their approach. This is contributing to Mahomes’ far lower number of throws to tightly covered receivers.
Next Gen Stats from nfl.com measures this via their AGG% (Aggressiveness) statistic. It captures the number of throws a quarterback makes with a defender within one yard of the receiver. Of all signal callers pushing the ball down the field more than 8.5 yards per attempt (Intended Air Yards – IAY), Mahomes is by far making the least throws into tight coverage at 10.7 percent.
NFL.com Next Gen Stats – Aggressiveness (AGG%) by Highest Intended Air Yard (IAY) Passers*
*There is a delta between Pro Football Focus aDOT and Next Gen’s IAY which are basically the same thing, but Pro Football Focus does not share data on tight coverage so both sources were used.
Mahomes is currently throwing a touchdown on 9.1 percent of his pass attempts. Through week nine, he has attempted 317 passes.
Since 2007 the number of quarterbacks to throw that many passes and achieve that touchdown rate is zero. In 2011, Aaron Rodgers posted a 9 percent. Tom Brady registered 8.7 percent in 2007.
Peyton Manning is the season-long record holder for touchdowns with 55 in 2013. That season Manning averaged a touchdown on 8.3 percent of his atempts, but was attempting six more passes per game than Mahomes currently (35).
While passing touchdowns can be volatile, Mahomes is scoring them consistently in a variety of ways so far:
Red Zone – 72 percent of Mahomes’ touchdown passes
- 21 Touchdowns (1st)
- 50 Attempts (1st)
- 42% Touchdown Rate
Ten to One – 42 percent of Mahomes’ touchdown passes
- 11 Touchdowns (2nd)
- 26 Attempts (5th)
- 42% Touchdown Rate
Deep Passing – 28 percent of Mahomes’ touchdown passes
- 8 Touchdowns (4th)
- 52 Attempts (1st)
- 15% Touchdown Rate
When you look at the last four passers to throw 45 touchdowns or more in a season, Mahomes is not disproportionately leaning on big plays for scores. His rate of 28 percent was also a sweet spot for Rodgers, Brady, and Brees (See the TD Percentage below (last column):
Deep Passing for QBs with 45 or more passing TDs (2007-2017)
Mahomes for MVP
Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees all have enjoyed long NFL careers and each saw a special season or two where everything clicked perfectly. Similarly to Dan Marino, Mahomes in his second season is enjoying that special year.
Will Mahomes be able to sustain his torrid pace and win the MVP? I don’t know. The numbers he is putting up are very rare. What I will say is the more and more I dug into the data the more I felt like I was looking at the next great quarterback.
Dwain McFarland has an extensive background leading data and analytics teams in the healthcare market. Most recently, he served as an Associate Vice President for one of the largest healthcare performance improvement companies in the United States.
Dwain has a passion for understanding key performance drivers to success, which he will be bringing with him to the RSP. His understanding of football context is always at the core of his analysis. Dwain brings a rich understanding of coaching schemes and player utilization tendencies that are key contributing factors to player success and development.
A native Texan, Dwain is married and they have three kids, one named Landry, in honor of the legendary Cowboys head coach. You can follow him on Twitter @dwainmcfarland.
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